Religious Drama: Mediaeval and Modern
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[ 519 Religious Drama: Mediaeval and Modern1 * University of Edinburgh Journal, 9 (Autumn 1937) 8-17 When we speak of “religious plays,” we inevitably have in mind Everyman, and the various cycles of plays, such as those of York, Beverley, Wakefield, Coventry and Chester,2 which flourished in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and lingered on through the time of the Tudors. These plays give us a kind of standard by which we measure anything that we write and produce now – however far we depart from the aims and methods of the older drama. The qualification is important. For this standard of the mediaeval plays may be applied in an undesirable way. We are apt to think of the Middle Ages as having been somehow specially favoured in the way of their mode of life, their religious stability, and their atmosphere of faith and devotion; and we start with a feeling of discouragement and timidity that is fatal to the production of anything new. I suspect that, for the most part, people still tend to regard the performance of a religious play as somethingtobeattended ,likeabazaarorajumblesale,fromasenseofdutyrather than for the purpose of enjoyment. You may even feel that you have fulfilled your duty if you buy tickets and manage to give them away to somebody who will go in your place. You may even think of them as you may think of pageants – as performances which give a great deal more pleasure to the people takingpartinthem(especiallyifthecostumesareinteresting)thanto the audience. It is to combat this feeling that I find an understanding of the right relation between contemporary and mediaeval religious drama, and between contemporary religious and secular plays, to be helpful. To begin with, there is one reason for trying to create modern religious plays for modern times, that may not have struck you. I once said in a different context, and speaking not about the drama but about poetry, that a people which lost the ability to produce poetry would gradually lose its appreciation of what it had written in the past. Our attitude towards a dead art is very different from our attitude towards one which is still living. It is not necessary that what we make for ourselves should be better than what our ancestors made for us, or even as good: but if we cease to make we cease to understand. We acquire the wrong kind of respect for what has been done in the past, by the awareness of our own impotence to do anything. Essays, Reviews, Commentaries, and Public Letters: 1937 520 ] We become excessively time-conscious. I think one is always struck, in reading a play like the Wakefield Second Shepherds’ Nativity Play, by the fact that for the people who played it the passage of time made very little difference. They cared little about anachronisms, and a great deal about the permanent elements of humanity. We, on the other hand, are far more aware of these people as living in the fifteenth century, than they were of the much longer gap of time between themselves and the actions they were representing. We perform the play in a closed theatre with scenery, instead of on top of a cart in the high street; and we tend to construct the scenery in terms of a fresco of Giotto,3 if not of the more opulent costume of some later period of Italian painting. We get a very pretty piece of pageantry, at the expense of the essential emotion of religious drama or of any drama. And if we want a living religious drama we must be prepared to accept something less sedative, and perhaps something which may cause us some discomfort and embarrassment in the process of getting used to it. In our way of enjoying mediaeval religious plays – I am speaking now of the part of the audience rather than that of the producer – we avoid any direct emotion . We have a pretty spectacle; and so far as we feel religious emotion, it is rather a faint revival of the form of feeling of five hundred years ago than something directly our own. A good deal too much has been said in general about “ages of faith”: as if faith were fundamentally easier, or more difficult, for people who think as well as feel, in one age than in another. The advantages of the Middle Ages for the creation of religious plays were not, I think, primarily those of a simplefaith,andsomeofthemaresuchasweshouldnotcaretopaythe price torecapture.AsreligiousdramawastheonlykindofdramathattheMiddle...